‘County lines’ refers to the use of dedicated mobile phone lines - or alternative “deal lines”- by individual drug dealers or drug dealing organised crime groups (OCGs) to effect illegal transactions from ‘export’ areas (usually urban) to customers in ‘import’ areas (usually more rural locales), specifically within the borders of the UK. The gangs and OCGs often exploit children or vulnerable adults to hold or courier the products and/or funds involved in this criminal trade.
In this blog, we explain what county lines drug trafficking is and examine the scale of the problem. We will also look at how law enforcement agencies (LEAs) currently combat this illegal activity through its associated financial flows and hear from experts in the field on how effective SARs by anti-money laundering (AML) practitioners can help detect county lines crime, freeing the victims and reeling in the perpetrators.
Although we will focus on county lines drug trafficking within the UK, SAR reporters in the financial sectors of countries the world over will be able to gain insights into how tracking the financial flows of similar crime trends can help detect and counter the threat in their jurisdictions.
What are county lines operations and how big is the problem?
The National Crime Agency (NCA) defines county lines as being when “illegal drugs are transported from one area to another, often across police and local authority boundaries (although not exclusively), usually by children or vulnerable people who are coerced into it by gangs.” They define the county line as “the mobile phone line used to take the orders of drugs.” The NCA also notes that importing areas (the destination areas of the drugs) are reporting increased rates of violence and weapons-related crimes as a result of county lines drug trafficking.
The NCA indicated in its county lines intelligence assessment for 2018 that over 2,000 ‘deal lines’ were operating nationally, usually run by OCGs in urban centres selling mostly crack cocaine and heroin (which account for 69% of county lines trafficked drugs) to customers in smaller towns and rural areas. The NCA estimated that each individual line could be making more than £800,000 per year.
The report further found that 60% of county lines operations were carried out using the road network and that the choice of vehicles to distribute drugs and collect payments was inclusive of 25% private cars, 16% hire cars, and 14% buses or coaches. The remaining 40% of county lines operations were adjudged to be carried out using the rail network, which tacitly suggests that children 18 and under, most of whom cannot yet legally drive, are popular recruiting targets for offenders.
The NCA report also indicated that 91% of county line offenders were male, although possible gender bias was noted. Meanwhile, the NCA’s analysis of National Referral Mechanism (NRM) data showed that most victims exploited by OCGs to undertake county line operations were juveniles (24%) with most being between the ages of 15 and 17, possibly because of that age band’s susceptibility to control due to the power differential. Most adults (21%) targeted for recruitment by county lines OCGs were vulnerable because of drug and/or alcohol addiction, extensive low-level criminal records, and mental health issues.
A February 2020 estimate put the number of UK children involved in county lines drug trafficking at 27,000. While these indicators make for grim reading, we shall now see what successes LEAs are having in countering county lines crime.
How are the UK government and our LEAs fighting county lines drug traffickers?
Currently, the UK Home Office funds the National County Lines Coordination Centre (NCLCC), which is run collaboratively by both the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and the NCA. Additionally, close cooperation with local police forces on the ground in county lines afflicted areas is a critical component in the fight against this societal menace.
The Home Office’s 2021 Beating Crime Plan policy paper both throws down the gauntlet to county lines criminals and offers hope to their victims, asserting that: “Drugs are a scourge on society. We will address both the supply and demand – coming down harder on drug dealers, dismantling county lines gangs, making clear that ‘recreational use’ is not harmless and supporting drug and alcohol addicts to access the treatment services they need to turn their lives around.”
The NCLCC Strategic Assessment for 2020/21 points towards the successes of the collective LEA effort, recording a reduction from as many as 1100 active deal lines in 2019/20 to as few as 600 in 2020/21. One highlight of the collaborative LEA operations was the September 2020 week-long crackdown in West Midlands, Warwickshire, West Mercia and Staffordshire, which netted 1,041 arrests and saw £526,000 cash, £1 million worth of drugs, and 196 weapons seized.
More recently, the criminals involved in the UK’s biggest county lines OCG operation were jailed for a collective 124 years last month as a result of 2019’s Operation Serpent in Kettering, Northamptonshire and northwest London, while Operation Impose in Hinckley, Leicestershire - also last month - effected 43 arrests, confiscated £200,000 in cash, and seized £300,000 (6kg) of heroin.
What role do SARs play in combatting county lines criminal operations?
Within the NCLCC, the NCA runs a specialized illicit finances team which analyses the financial flows within the county lines underworld, with the goal of seizing the assets of the profiteers. This NCLCC entity works closely with the UKFIU’s SARs Exploitation Team (SET) and SARs Enquiries and Action Team (SEA).
According to SARS in Action November 2020, the collaboration has resulted in the creation of a template of county lines-applicable key words for SARs reporters to include in their submissions, which has been used by 26 police forces across England and Wales. The template is constantly evaluated and updated.
What do the experts say about exploiting SARs to bust county lines drug traffickers?
The UKFIU runs a monthly podcast programme on behalf of the AML sector, which focuses on how SARs help to combat crime, and the strengths and weaknesses of the UK’s AML regime. In the March 2021 episode, experts from the UKFIU and NCLCC provided insights into county lines-specific SARs reporting:
- UKFIU SEA team member, Matt Edwards, acknowledged the challenges of spotting county lines activities for SARs, citing as a red flag example the occurrence of teenagers transacting a long way from their home areas, which could indicate exploitation by dealers or OCGs. Speaking to how SAR reporters can assist the SEA, Mr Edwards said, "We would encourage reporters to ensure all their staff are upskilled to identify relevant activity (of County Lines) and articulate these suspicions clearly within their own submissions.”
- NCLCC senior manager, Amy Wiedeman, acknowledged the ‘intelligence gap’ in county lines crime fighting. She noted several red flags at the lower tier of county lines crime as including unusual long-distance travel and lengthy absences, truancy, and unexplained injuries among children. Ms Wiedeman elaborated on the potential of SARs in fighting this crime, noting that “not only have SARs been used to assist in identifying individuals involved in County Lines, and County Lines typologies, they have also been used to assist to identify potentially vulnerable victims either as money mules or as victims of exploitation by the OCGs.”
How can Napier help your business combat crimes like county lines drug trafficking?
Find out how SARs assist in breaking up online child sexual abuse and exploitation (CSAE), cracking modern slavery and human trafficking (MSHT) rings, and tracing illegal wildlife trading (IWT) in some of our other blogs. In this blog, we have learned how effective SARs can be used by LEAs to bust county lines drug traffickers and liberate their victims. AML practitioners are well and truly in the trenches when it comes to fighting back against all these crimes.
At Napier, we believe in using cutting-edge technology to support your AML teams in combatting county lines crime, CSAE, and MSHT, as well as keeping your organisation of whatever size on the right side of the regulator. If you would like to find out how Napier can assist you, you can request a demo or contact us.